Suppressing the Franco Vote: Literacy Tests, Court Challenges & the KKK

“There are 8,000 French Canadians in Biddeford, and they are reputed to be excellent people, peaceable, industrious, frugal, and the only allegation that can be made against them is that the French Canadian men are almost unanimously Democrats.  For being Democrats they are suffering persecution…Every French Canadian who has been naturalized  by the Biddeford court has been notified that if he should attempt to vote…he would be placed under arrest.”

New York Times, August 27, 1890


Wisconsin and Arizona, two states which enacted voter-ID laws in recent years, hosted recent presidential primaries.  So far, there aren’t reports of big problems in Wisconsin, but Arizona’s primary was criticized for long waits in line at polling stations, the number of which had also been reduced recently.  The Department of Justice is investigating whether the efforts in Arizona, aimed at cracking down on voter fraud, constitute a violation of the Voting Rights Act, by disproportionately affecting minority groups.  Today, African-Americans and, increasingly, Latinos are thought to be the targets of discriminatory voting legislation.  But within living memory, Maine and other states had provisions on the books that were aimed at disenfranchising Franco-American voters.

"Too Much Like Caesar", Puck Magazine illustration of Speaker Reed, 1895

“Too Much Like Caesar”, Puck Magazine illustration of Speaker Reed, 1895. Library of Congress.

The example above from Biddeford in 1890 shows the difficulties new Franco-American immigrants faced in voting.  Unlike some other states, Maine’s constitution required that voters be citizens from the state’s inception in 1820.  But even when French Canadian immigrants became citizens, their right to vote was far from guaranteed.  The Biddeford case was an attempt by Republicans to ensure the re-election of Thomas Brackett Reed, one of the most notable Maine politicians of the 19th century.  As Speaker of the House, “Czar Reed,” as he was known, controlled his caucus with an iron fist, and created some of the modern Congressional rules.  In this period, Maine was a strongly Republican state, and had been more or less since the inception of the Republican Party in 1856.  The Catholic immigrant population, which consistently voted Democratic, was a threat to this dominance.  The Maine Supreme Court (whose justices had been appointed by Republican governors), ruled that over 500 citizens were ineligible to vote, based on a narrow interpretation of immigration law, which made the court of naturalization in Biddeford illegal – in essence stripping them of their citizenship.

Just a few years later, Maine legislators (in 1891) and voters (in 1892) codified this discrimination against Franco-Americans by amending  the Maine constitution to require a literacy test of voters.  While reminiscent of similar legislation enacted across the South to stop African-Americans from voting, Maine’s test wasn’t as byzantine or draconian.  Voters had to be able to read a copy of the Maine Constitution in English.  By far the largest group of non-English speakers in Maine were (and still are) Franco-Americans.  Franco-Americans fought back by providing English language classes to their compatriots, in addition to citizenship lessons.  In Lewiston, these efforts were led by Dr. Louis Martel and his colleagues at the French-language newspaper, Le Messager.


Ku Klux Klan parade in Portland, 1923.  Maine Historical Society image.

Ku Klux Klan parade in Portland, 1923. Maine Historical Society image.

Nonetheless, efforts to deny Franco-Americans a political voice continued.  While Maine Francos grew more and more influential in the election of city aldermen, mayors, and even state legislators in certain parts of the state, nativist and anti-immigrant groups feared that their influence would be felt in statewide and congressional district races.  The position of Portland’s elected mayor was eliminated in 1923 after a campaign by the Ku Klux Klan against the Jewish and Catholic voters of the city.  The influence of the Klan was felt elsewhere, as in the election of Republican Ralph Owen Brewster as governor in 1924. After his term as governor, Brewster ran for Congress in what was then Maine’s third  congressional district, in the northern part of the state, in 1932.  He lost in a tight race against John G. Utterback, a Bangor Democrat, by 324 votes.  Brewster attempted to contest the election by alleging “voting irregularities” in sixteen overwhelmingly Franco towns in the St. John River Valley.  Election officials there were accused of not enforcing the literacy requirement.  Brewster lost the appeal, but defeated Utterback in 1934.

And in case it be thought that these ugly incidents were just examples from a bygone age, Maine’s literacy test remained a part of the constitution into 1979, when its repeal was put out to voters, almost 15 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  Mainers voted to keep the literacy test in place by a 2:1 margin, and it was only removed after it was deemed unconstitutional by judicial review.  As late as 1969, Secretary of State Elden Shute defended the provision as “necessary.”

As I discussed with David Vermette last month, political power gave Franco-Americans a voice, and denial of political power enables the persecution of minorities.  The fact that today Maine has a Franco-American governor and has elected two Franco-American congressmen speaks to changes in the political environment in Maine.   But even as Francos face less discrimination at the polls, efforts at voter ID laws continue (despite firm evidence of significant fraud) in Maine.  There are also occasional incidents of intimidation at the polls.  Democracy is always a work in progress, and sometimes it’s not the form of discrimination that changes as much as the target.



James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.